A nurse in Venezuela and the Good Samaritan's Lesson

A few days ago, a photograph of a 2-years young child in Venezuela appeared in media. Malnourished and ill with a genetic condition, Anailin Nava, is a mirror that tells us something is deeply wrong with our world. She gets a meagre meal once a day and is suffering owing to a combination of factors -- lack of adequate nutrition, no medical care, poverty, and a general global apathy. The photograph wrenches the gut -- a baby is calling out to the conscience of the world. In The  Creation of Faith, Juan Mascaro writes that ”There are a great many bad actions which people are very anxious to perform efficiently." Venezuela has joined the many places where we have become very efficient. Despite being endowed with the world's largest oil reserves, it has managed to effect, in the words of The New York Times, ”the single largest economic collapse outside of war in at least 45 years."

In the midst of this darkness, Light showed up -- the kind of Light that tells us to keep Faith and work. 

Fabiola Molero is a nurse who worked for over twenty years in hospitals before quitting to work as a volunteer to help the suffering in Venezuela. When she heard of Anailin, she packed some food and supplies -- and set off hiking over thirty five kilometres (i think) to help the child. The New York Times reports --  ”The arrival of the nurse, and the food, made an immediate difference, Ms. Nava said: “Now she’s cheerful.””” 

In the papers of Martin Luther King. Jr., one of the many sermon notes he wrote speaks about ”the good man" being someone ”whose exemplary life will always stand as a flashing light to plague the dozing conscience of mankind. His goodness was not found in his passive commitment to a particular creed, but in his active participation in....life saving deed. His goodness was not found in the fact that his moral pilgrimage had reached its destination point, but in the fact that he made the love ethic a reality as he journeyed life’s highway. He was good because he was a good neighbor." 

He goes on to invoke the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament. A traveller lies on the road beaten up, stripped, and possibly almost dead. Two people walk by and ignore the traveller. The third, a Samaritan, stops and helps. Martin writes -- "I can imagine that the first question which the Priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Then the good Samaritan came by, and by the very nature of his concern reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The good Samaritan was willing to engage in a dangerous altruism. In his very life he raised the question that always emerges from the good man. We so often ask, “what will happen to my job, my prestige or my status if I take a stand on this issue? If I take a stand for justice and truth, will my home be bombed, will my life be threatened or will I be jailed? What will happen to me?””

This morning, i am thinking of Fabiola Molero, the good Samaritan and the fact that each of us must act in (seemingly) small ways -- Anailin and others like her who we encounter every day must become healthy, smile, and bloom. 

Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier -- lives of Love and Lessons in Leadership

i continue to be with Jean Vanier  and i am thinking of one of his deep friendships — the companionship he had with Henri Nouwen.

Henri was a Catholic priest and academic who taught at the University of Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, and spent his last years with L’Arche. 

For some, the letters of Vincent Van Gogh communicate a view the he saw life as a pilgrimage of sorts  This is interesting because Henri was influenced by the great artist — and Henri’s life (as i see it) was a pilgrimage.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri writes that ”the illusion of leadership is to think than man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” This view has a long ancestry — the idea that changing the world is rooted in changing oneself. This simple fact explains why it is the practitioners (rather than career-preachers) who are able to genuinely move hearts and galvanise our hands 

A person who has spent time in the desert and seen reality as it is,  (the sages in the Indic region called this darshana) walks out with a deep recognition of the fact that ”at every moment of our life we have an opportunity to choose” and ”the way we respond to circumstances” determines whether we become ”a source of joy” or bitter victims ranting at Fate. (words in quotes from Henri in (Here and Now: Living in the Spirit

This person, the true Leader who has walked the desert and emerged ”radiating joy” , is a ”messenger of hope” — someone who ”keeps speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky.” 

”Wherever he goes, whomever he meets, he is able to see and hear something beautiful, something for which to be grateful.....He is a realist....there is nothing sentimental about him....He doesn’t deny the great sorrow that surrounds him nor is he blind or deaf to the agonising sights and sounds of his fellow human beings, but his spirit gravitates towards the light in the darkness....” Henri Nouwen, like Jean, is Light.

In Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Henri exhorts us to move beyond a life where ”we act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide how to entertain ourselves until we die” and work ourselves  to the realisation that each of us owes Life a vocation.

Viktor Frankl, drawing from chilling experiences of the Nazi pogroms, echoes this when he writes (Man’s Search For Meaning) that ”we need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk....but in right action and in right conduct.”

The way i spend each day is my answer to Life’s question for me.

Jean Vanier -- a life of Love

In 1963, after spending time with the Navy, exploring the possibility of becoming a priest, and studying philosophy, a 34 years-old man was invited by his spiritual guide to visit a village in France. The visit opened his eyes to the enormous suffering that lies all around us. What particularly moved him was the state of people who have mental challenges and (at that time) were locked up in asylums  The next year, he took up residence in a bare cottage (with no running water or toilet) and invited two men who were challenged to live with him. He was not sure what the road ahead was — but he took this step. In talks and writings later, he would comment that he was changed by them, that they became ”teachers of tenderness.”

The man callled this cottage L’Arche (the Ark)  Today, there are about 150+ L’Arche communities around the world in 35+ countries  In these communities (and many many places elsewhere around the world), people live life with the conviction that ”we are all called to do, not extraordinary things, but very ordinary things, with an extraordinary love” (Community and Growth). They do this by embracing and caring for the sick, the abandoned, the despised — the people, if i may say so, rejected by the practical, conventional world.

In Man and Woman God Made Them, Jean writes — ”A society which discards those who are weak and non-productive risks exaggerating the development of reason, organisation, aggression and the desire to dominate. It becomes a society without a heart, without kindness - a rational and sad society, lacking celebration, divided within itself and given to competition, rivalry and, finally, violence.”

Jean’s response to this reality was not a cynical withdrawal away from a brutish world but to live the life described in sacred texts — a life that demonstrates that ”The response to war is to live like brothers and sisters. The response to injustice is to share. The response to despair is a limitless trust and hope. The response to prejudice and hatred is forgiveness.”

People who have met and spent time with Jean Vanier use words such as humility and phrases such as ”palpable holiness”  i think, at the heart of his life lay a comprehension of what Love means — and a Faith that if each of us grows in Love, ”the prisons of our egoism” will unlock and the world will become a better place 

Jean Vanier passed on yesterday — when i first heard this, my flag moved down half-mast  but as i spent time on my notes about him, i realised that this is an inappropriate response. I think his life is a call to action and, the only tribute of value is for me to re-commit to making myself better every moment — and consequently, perhaps being of some use to the world. 

Mary Ann Evans writes in Middlemarch”What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” Jean taught us that the meaning of life lies in this.

Gifts that "defy reciprocation"

Scott Adams, the famous creator of the Dilbert comic strip and wise critic of management, had a dream of being a cartoonist. In a blog post, he writes about rejections from publishers he wrote to (clearly, the world seemed oblivious to his talents) and writing to the host of a TV show (Jack Cassady) asking for advice. Jack, surprisingly, wrote back to the aspiring, struggling cartoonist - - not once but twice!

Scott writes — “I feel certain that I wouldn’t have tried cartooning again if Jack hadn’t sent the….letter. With a kind word and a postage stamp, he started a chain of events that reaches all the way to you right now. As Dilbert became more successful I came to appreciate the enormity of Jack’s simple act of kindness. I did eventually thank him, but could never shake the feeling that I had been given a gift which defied reciprocation. Somehow, “thanks” didn’t seem to be enough. ….there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

A few days ago, a voice from the past messaged me, and told me that though she does not communicate much with me, i had done something in class years ago that had changed her life — a change that led her to the rich life she leads today. i remember her fondly but i had no idea that my words & action had influenced her so much. 

Two things struck me —  

a) When i was teaching in her class years ago, i had no idea i was making an impact on people. i was not trying to — i was just teaching a subject. Our words and actions have far-reaching ripples . In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta where we study the Buddha’s guidance to Rahula (his son), we find instructions on right action, right speech, and right thought”Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it....Whenever you want to perform a verbal act, you should reflect on it....Whenever you want to do a mental action, you should reflect on it.”

We influence people by what we say and do. And the effect of the influence is often not immediately visible  The Buddha’s statements here are not a set of steps to a metaphysical supernatural world — rather, it is a parent advising a child that we would do well to take great care in our thinking, speaking, and doing 

(b) The second thing that struck me is this — Scott Adams writes that he ”had been given a gift which defied reciprocation.” As i ended the conversation with the young lady, i began to wonder at how the world runs owing to people who offer such gifts to others — gifts that defy reciprocation.  i have received many many such gifts — far more than i deserve. This young lady gave me such a gift years ago by showing up to my class, and later, asking for some tutorials — with faith that i could teach her.  Faith (often unexpressed in words) is one of the greatest gifts we can offer to another — a gift that defies reciprocation 

More Love please....

i get newsfeeds everyday from an independent journalist in the frontlines of war around the world. The photographs he sends convey unspeakable depravity and cruelty — a daily reminder that despite all the trappings of civilisation that we cloak ourselves with, bestiality continues to be a trait our species demonstrates.

Father Gregory Boyle who founded (and runs) the largest rehabilitation program for young people (who stray into gangs and violence owing to the circumstances they grow up in) points out in his 2018 Commencement talk at Pepperdine University that “only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has any chance of changing the world.” 

It may sound impractical but i see a great need to back Peace Pilgrim’s message to us in Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words ”The medicine this sick world needs so badly is love.”

We have all the science and technology needed to make a difference — to not war, to help people make fulfilling lives for themselves, and to live well. Hunger, for example, as many eminent thinkers have pointed out, is not a problem of scarcity but of politics. So is the case with much of the ills we face. 

i am not preaching a way of life but it seems to me that we need to show more love, show more kindness, and walk our high-sounding talk a lot more.